'South Central' attempts to offer a solution to the attraction of gang life

September 18, 1992|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

Of course we look at the cities and we wonder what's to be done. The litany of chaos seems overwhelming, the vortex of pathologies seemingly hellbent on crushing a generation, much in the way World War I claimed a whole generation of British youth.

But say this for "South Central": Though it is not a great movie by any stretch of the imagination, it attempts what so few others have dared -- it gives an answer.

Somewhat lamely dramatized, it's more like a piece of earnest anthropology that spends its first third explicating the attraction of the gang life to young African-American men, its middle third examining the inevitable consequences of that attraction, and its last third offering a solution. You may not like the solution, but there it stands, tall, proud and unashamed.

For the truth is, "South Central" is as unabashed a Muslim movie as the American film industry is likely to give us until "Malcolm X" in November; it's about a young man who at first is lost and then is found by the amazing grace of Islam, its precepts and unrelenting moral center. Enlightened, he learns the magic word which usually sounds so ominous when uttered by the Republican ticket but, shorn of politics, must be a large part of any answer: responsibility. He takes his for the son he's sired, and, as the movie perhaps too optimistically suggests, the cycle is therefore broken.

Glenn Plummer plays Bobby, a gang-banger all the way, proud (( member of "Deuce" in the sad city of Lost Angels, California. He's what the gang has made him: hard and arrogant and tough. He's exiled his heart: His way is to dominate, his only allegiance to the crew. That he has a son whose name he doesn't know is largely meaningless to him.

("Deuce," incidentally, is a clever mercy on the part of director Steve Anderson; instead of making Bobby either a Crip or a Blood, and thereby validate the movie for one squad of shooters while guaranteeing it as a target for the other, he's chosen to combine Crip and Blood street argo, graffiti and gesture vocabulary to create a somewhat more generic gang and hopefully prevent shoot-outs tonight in L.A. Deuce, in other words, doesn't mean "two" so much as "both.")

The movie makes it clear that the gang is all such young men have. Shorn of families, largely shorn of hope, they turn to each other; that lack of care, fueled by hate and empty role models, is passed on, generation to generation.

Soon Bobby, Ray-Ray's No. 2 man, finds himself on a raid against a rival dealer, a smooth fellow who's shown some attention for his woman, though Bobby himself has not. Bobby executes him, and by a casual act of complete stupidity, he's caught and sent up.

In prison, "South Central" comes alive: Anderson gets the uneasy protocols between groups of predators, black and white alike, and again makes the point that the man alone is lost. But it takes this a further step: a man can give to the gang, but sometimes the gang doesn't give back. Bobby is an upright guy; he lives by the code, standing up for other gang members in the slammer, keeping his mouth shut. But the gang ultimately turns on him; he's no longer useful.

Bobby is rescued by Ali (Carl Lumbly), a Muslim lifer doing his time because he murdered the men who murdered his son. Knowing that Bobby has a son, he hopes to rescue the father and the son. He takes responsibility for Bobby, protecting him and ordering him to study his own culture and learn of his own traditions and the strong sense of family that has sustained black culture through the centuries.

The point is explicit: It isn't enough to just want to change. One has to have a ideological structure which sustains one -- that's the only source of strength and the only mechanism for such reclamation. "South Central" choses Islam as the source of its guiding light; I think it's not going too far to suggest that in a larger sense, it's not so much the choice of that faith, but the choice of any faith, any system of belief that honors the moral behavior of the individual as its fundamental precept, that is the true beacon.

The third act of "South Central" is its weakest. I understand that Anderson had in a sense worked himself into a bind: He'd rescued Bobby from the gang and now he had to follow up with Bobby's rescue of his son from the gang. But such a rescue would itself make the subject for an entire movie; thus the ending somehow feels pinched and rushed, and that sense of utter verisimilitude is somewhat sacrificed.

Bobby finds his 10-year-old son, Jimmie (Christian Coleman), at gang headquarters about, at Ray-Ray's insistence, to kill his first victim, a man who had wounded him while he was committing a crime. This arrangement of the competing allegiances for the boy's soul is suspiciously convenient and indeed, the final scene plays like some Sunday school morality play, with each side baldly stating its case until the boy makes his choice. The sentiments are grand, the optimism is wonderful, the intentions are superb -- but oh how much nicer it would be for all of us it it were that easy a thing.

'South Central'

Starring Glenn Plummer.

Directed by Steve Anderson.

Released by Warner Bros.

Rated R.

***

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